Jerry Milani
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September 13 - Still Berning, Baby

Today is Bernie Williams' birthday. He's 37. At times earlier this year, he
looked more like 47. A couple of steps slow to the ball in the field, a
couple of inches slow to the ball at the bat, and a couple of feet slow to
the bases. The fleet, gold-glove winning slugger seemed to be a shell of
himself, and in many ways it was sad. As the team floundered in (gasp!)
the bottom tier of the division through the season's first couple of months,
it seemed old No. 51 was, well, old No. 51.

A couple of weeks back, Williams' season numbers beyond repair,
Yankees Manager Joe Torre sat him down and told him that August and
September is his time. Forget about the numbers, he said, you can't
change them. But for the entire run of the Torre Yankees, Bernie has been the new-age Mr. October,
coming through time and time again in the postseason.

Tonight, Williams seems to have turned back the clock about 10 years. Three hits, a perfect throw to
second to nab Carl Crawford in his imprudent attempt to tag up from first. A couple of nice running,
sliding catches. It's an awful Yankees bludgeoning of the Devil Rays, the kind they used to administer
to the expansion Rays before Lou Piniella's gang turned the tables this year. Williams has come up
with quite a few big hits in the past couple of weeks and I wouldn't bet against him finding one or two
more magic moments in the next few.

While Williams probably won't get much support when Hall of Fame balloting comes around for him
sometime in the next decade, I think Yankees management is already planning to utilize the space
just to the right of the 49 in the retired numbers' section for 51. Eight straight .300 seasons, 2100+
hits, and nearly 1200 RBI later, he's certainly earned it.

Of course it will be easy to remember the big hits. I tick off the extra-inning
homers off Randy Myers to beat Baltimore in the 1996 ALCS and off Rod
Beck to top the Red Sox in the '99 ALCS. But, significantly, I'll also always
remember the quiet dignity with which Williams has gone about his
business, game in and game out, win or lose, good game and bad. He
has hit everywhere from first to eighth the past couple of seasons, and
his attitude has always stayed the same: put me in, coach, I'm ready to
play. It's particularly refreshing in this age of me-first, SportsCenter-
highlight-seeking athletes.

It's heartening for me to see and hear the cheers at Yankee Stadium that Bernie receives when he
does, well, just about anything these days. With Tino Martinez, another classy link to the Yankee glory
days playing out perhaps his final games with the team, sidelined with an injury, Williams has been
high on fans' curtain call request lists.

If this sounds like an epitaph on Bernie's Yankee headstone, I guess it comes across that way
since,despite his late-season run, it is still unlikely that he'll be back in Pinstripes in 2006. I hope
there's a place for him next year as a part-time DH and outfielder, but I'm realistic about the chances
of that. But seeing him in another uniform would be as jarring as Boston fans must have felt seeing
Ray Bourque in an Avalanche jersey or Cowboys fans watching Tony Dorsett in Broncos Orange.

So,
Feliz Cumpleanos, Bernie. And many, many more.